Congleton hails the heroes of the 1st Battalion Mercian Regiment
PUBLISHED: 11:22 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 18:21 20 February 2013
Congleton pulled out all the stops to welcome the 1st Battalion Mercian Regiment home from Afghanistan
There was one young lad who came along to help us raise money. He was desperate to do his bit. He went out to Afghanistan the week after he turned 18 and he has come back without a foot. Thats tragic. But its because of stories like this that we are doing what we are doing in Congleton.
Steve Ellwood has more reason than most to raise funds for his local regiment - his son is serving in Afghanistan - but there is more than basic paternal pride behind his actions. Steve is one of the people leading the fight on Congletons home front to support members of 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, formerly known as The Cheshire Regiment.
And there is no shortage of backing for the local soldiers. The towns reaction when the troops returned from a seven month tour of duty in Afghanistan was staggering - cheering crowds filled pavements all around the town centre as the regiment marched past.
There is a hell of a lot of pride about Congleton, Steve added. I have lived here for more than 20 years but I hadnt realised until recently what a heart and soul the town has. People feel passionately about the place. They have a wonderful sense of good old fashioned pride.
Steve launched a wristband campaign in Congleton which has so far raised about 9,000 to help support soldiers in combat zones and those recovering from injury in hospital.
His son Mark - a Major with the Mercians - was awarded the MBE last year for his work in Afghanistan and Steve said: Hes over there doing a fantastic job and if I can do something over here to help raise money and the profile of the regiment that will help in a little way. It sounds naff but I am doing a little bit while he is doing a hell of a lot.
The support in Congleton has been absolutely extraordinary - the other towns have been great but in Congleton it has been amazing. Groups all over have offered help and support to the injured soldiers - it has been utterly incredible. People putting money in a pot have thanked us for giving them the chance to show their support. Thats what this whole campaign has done, it has given the public a chance to show in a practical way that they care.
I am proud that Mark has come back and sad that some from the company came back injured and that others will not return.
For six months I have had my mobile phone with me wherever I have gone and have not wanted it to ring but known I would not want to miss the call if it came. Its not morbid, Ive just been permanently aware that the call could come at any moment.
It has been hard watching the news as well in case the next one is one from his company. There are lots of emotions on a day like this.
Schools and businesses closed for the afternoon so young and old could see the regiment be awarded the freedom of the borough by Congleton Town Mayor Coun David Brown. The troops then marched through the town centre and were presented with their service medals in a public ceremony outside the town hall.
The battalions welfare officer, Captain John Elms, said: Events like this are about the regiment paying something back for the support that the people of Congleton and Cheshire have provided during our seven month tour.
The efforts of everyone here made a tremendous difference to the troops thousands of miles away. They are doing one or two patrols a day in near 50 degree heat at times and to know you have that parcel waiting for you when you are back keeps you going. The items are a great help but its the letter in there that means the most. A letter from a schoolchild or someone from your home town that lets you know people are thinking of you - that means the world to us.
As welfare officer I look after bereaved families and days like this are hard for them - they are seen as celebrations but every loss is significant and our thoughts are with the families of soldiers who are not here.
More than 20,000 Jiffy bags have been sent out to Afghanistan from this corner of Cheshire and the Support Group have also provided shower bags for injured soldiers being treated at Selly Oak hospital in the West Midlands.
Jill Dolman now runs shop in Capitol Walk to raise money for the appeal and she said: At about the end of April last year I went to Selly Oak with my son Andrew, who is in the 1st Royal Irish. We realised in the first few minutes that these lads had come back with nothing. Families get that knock on the door and their first response isnt to get a bag of toothpaste and toiletries together, they just want to get there.
We started getting those things together and the support was fantastic so we started to get Play Stations and televisions and DVDs for them to keep them occupied.
One of those to benefit from the work of the Support Group is corporal Tony Williams who was paralysed from the waist down while attending to two wounded colleagues. When he woke in his hospital bed he realised he had missed their funerals.
That was very hard for me, he said. I was shot in the shoulder by a sniper. I ran back into the field to help a dying comrade. I saw a flash to my left. I ran to make sure the soldier who was alive was able to breathe, as I reached to him I was hit by a lucky shot in my spine.
Cpl Williams was airlifted to safety and transferred to Selly Oak and he added: Straight away when I woke up in the hospital they were there giving support. They just kept coming back. The support never ended. I was just glad to be alive and I felt cheeky to have them giving me stuff but it made a massive difference to me. Im doing really well with my recovery. Its just my left foot that is paralysed now.
Former Mayor of Congleton Cllr Ernie Clarke said: Congleton has always turned out for the troops and the brigadier was very impressed by the reaction of the people in the town.
We started sending Jiffy bags to Afghanistan and shower bags to Selly Oak hospital.
We started visiting soldiers in the hospital and that makes you realise how well the jiffy bags are received and that just inspires you to want to do more.
There was one lad at Selly Oak, hed had both legs and one arm blown off and his colonel asked him if there was anything he wanted. He said he wanted to be in Congleton with his mates when they march through the town.
Things are still coming in to us and our support will continue. We have reached a point now where it would feel wrong to stop just because its someone else's lads who are out there now.